Thousands of jubilant revelers will gather in Burlington this weekend for festivities known collectively as "Pride Vermont." This event and similar celebrations nationwide commemorate a turning point in the struggle for gay rights -- on June 28, 1969, police raided a Greenwich Village gay bar called the Stonewall Inn and, instead of being quietly arrested, the patrons rioted. The uprising energized activists everywhere.
The culture has changed quite a bit since then. Fifty years ago, people seen kissing or holding hands with someone of the same sex, or people caught wearing an insufficient number of articles of "gender-appropriate" clothing, could have been arrested, charged with indecency, and publicly shamed. Today straight men are publicly shamed -- and made over -- by five gay men who dish style tips on the popular TV show, "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy."
But it's not just straight culture that's changed; the gay and lesbian community has grown, too, to include people who identify themselves as bisexual, transgendered and queer. There's even room for supportive straight people who describe themselves as "allies."
Though these GLBTQA people might join forces to march on Church Street and party down afterwards, their community isn't as monolithic as it might appear to passing motorists.
Seven Days sought to illustrate this diversity by interviewing seven gays -- er, two gay men, a lesbian, a bisexual woman, a transsexual woman, a queer woman and a straight male ally. We asked them to talk about their lives, their politics, their feelings about same-sex marriage, and Governor Jim Douglas' recent veto of a bill that would have protected transgender Vermonters from discrimination. We also wanted to know how these folks fit in their community, and whether they feel comfortable calling themselves "queer."
Turns out the only thing they have in common is a shared pride in their differences -- and the belief that they deserve the same rights as anybody else.
Name: Chelsea Sullivan
G, L, B, T, Q, A? Queer
Sullivan is one of the Pride festival organizers. She works part-time as a babysitter, and will be returning to the University of Vermont in the fall.
On Pride: "It's about visibility and celebration. To me, it's a day when we can come together and see we're on the same team. It's like a family reunion."
On using the word "queer": "For someone in my generation, queer has no negative connotation. To me, saying lesbian or bisexual, it's such a box. I like queer because it encompasses everything."
On same-sex marriage: "It's a tough one. I'm glad people are doing the work. I'm for civil unions for gay people. But the same-sex-marriage issue kind of irks me. Marriage is a heteronormative practice. Some people, that's all they're working for, when there are a lot of other issues. It can shut people out of the movement when they don't want to get married."
How she's working for change: "I belong to the Queer Liberation Army. Lately we've been protesting the governor's veto of the gender identity and expression bill. I'm for the 'homosexual agenda' that's not the white, middle-class we-want-marriage-rights agenda. It's about genderfucking and polyamory. It's about trans issues, it's about femme issues, it's about bisexual rights. It's about class, race -- everything is tied together."
Name: Rachel Frida Siegel
G, L, B, T, Q, A? Bisexual woman
Siegel is a dancer and choreographer who works a variety of part-time jobs and volunteers with Vermont Access to Reproductive Freedom. She became a single mother by choice two-and-a-half years ago when she gave birth through an anonymous donor insemination. She and her daughter now live with Siegel's male partner, with whom she is expecting a baby -- conceived, she notes, "the old fashioned way."
On using the word 'queer': "For me it works really well, especially being a bisexual in a heterosexual relationship. It feels like just the right word for me."
On same-sex marriage: "I've never really felt good about the institution of marriage even in my relationships with men. Obviously it's important to have things be the same in terms of rights and choices, but I don't really feel like marriage is necessarily the way to have rights like hospital visitation and such. But I've sort of softened on it over the years. I was working at Burlington City Hall when the civil-unions law passed, and I saw the first one performed in Vermont. I was ecstatic. I was surprised by how happy I was."
On being in a heterosexual relationship: "I feel like I'm 'passing.' I walk around and people just see us as a regular family. There are times when I'm in groups of straight people, I just feel like such an outsider. I feel so nervous. Are they going to say something insensitive because they don't know about me? It feels very weird. And I love it that people accept me, but it pisses me off. Don't treat me like I'm normal if you treat my friends like garbage. There's a part of me that fears that my being privileged is robbing someone else of just living safely."
Most important political issue: "Reproductive rights. It feels like the core of human rights. If people can't choose if and when to parent, we're undermined in all aspects of our lives."
Name: Jeff Soyer
G, L, B, T, Q, A? Gay man
Soyer works in sales and marketing at Pompanoosic Mills. He calls himself "a gay gun nut" on his popular gun-rights blog, http://alphecca.com, and does a weekly web-radio report for the National Rifle Association. Last week, The Guardian UK identified Soyer as part of "the lunatic fringe of the U.S. right."
On Pride: "I'm always just a little bit embarrassed by the parades. I've never been to the one in Burlington, but in New York City it's gotten out of hand. Some of the people are just reinforcing all the bad stereotypes about us. To me, I'm just a regular guy who happens to like guys. When it gets to people wearing fairy dresses and things like that, I think, oh, man. Newspapers are just waiting to take those pictures, and right-wing groups are just waiting to post them up in their headquarters. And some of those people, I wouldn't want them teaching my kids.
On using the word 'queer': "I don't like it. I don't think there's anything queer about us. Why just accept other peoples' derogatory terms? I'd just as soon not reinforce their mindset. Queer indicates rareness, and there's just too many of us."
On same-sex marriage: "I think there should be all the legal things that go with it, but I don't really think it's necessary to imitate a straight institution. It's really low on my to-do list."
Political preference: "I'm a small 'l' libertarian. I voted for Bush in 2004, but it was holding my nose."
Most important political issue: "For most people, it's ending this stupid war. For me, it's always protecting the Bill of Rights. Once you give up your rights, you never get them back."
Name: Chris Tebbetts
G, L, B, T, Q, A?: Gay man
Tebbetts is a writer whose most recent book is the young-adult novel M or F?, which he co-authored with Lisa Papademetriou. The main character is a transgender youth. Tebbetts was the chair of the Vermont Freedom to Marry Task Force during the civil-unions debate. He shares a home with his civil-union partner, Jonathan Radigan.
On Pride: "I'm probably not going. I'm glad that it exists, but the older I get, the less of a gay warrior I feel like, and the less I desire to be there. I wish they would reinstate the Queer Town Meeting. I would definitely go to that."
On same-sex marriage: "It is the biggest issue right now. It's the number-one issue I've worked on within the queer rubric. Though I feel like I'm fighting for a level playing field, not that I'm fighting for the right to be married."
Does he miss 135 Pearl, Burlington's gay bar? "Nope. I'm sorry it went away, but I hadn't been there in years."
Name: Sarah Flynn
G, L, B, T, Q, A? Transsexual female
Before she transitioned from male to female 27 years ago, Flynn was a married United Methodist pastor. She later divorced, and worked as a college administrator in Connecticut. She is now retired and living with her civil-union partner, Joanna Cole. Flynn was forced to leave the Methodist fold -- she is currently a priest in the American Catholic Church of New England, and will be conducting a Pride liturgy in Battery Park on Sunday, July 9.
Most important queer issues: "Long-term, I think we need to face up to the fact that we need institutions that will outlast us to carry on the struggle against injustice. In the immediate, there are two things. We need to work to pass the gender identity bill. The second thing is same-sex marriage."
On family: "My mother and father were supportive of me. My mother didn't have much of an education, but she understood it was important to be compassionate to people who are different. "I have three children in their forties. After the divorce, they lived with their mother in Texas. She told them to tell strangers that I had died on the operating table. After my mother and father died, they basically withdrew, along with my brother and sister. My mother died in 1998, and I haven't heard from any of them since then."
On discrimination: "Get outside of Burlington and you can experience some difficult situations. I've known people who were afraid to stop at gas stations to go to the bathroom. I know people who have lost their jobs, who have been harassed. I know one trans person in Vermont who had to relocate his family to feel safe. I knew a trans person who was actually murdered in Connecticut. I get some name-calling occasionally. I was once threatened by some young thugs at a mall. Unfor- tunately, some of the worst discrimination I've experienced has been in the lesbian community. I think it'll change in time, as people get to know us better."
On the governor's veto of the gender identity bill: "I've written two letters to the governor and gotten the same form letter back. What was vague about the language in the bill? He says there were unanswered questions about it, but I find it hard to believe that he didn't have time to study it. It's been around for two years."
Name: Ita Meno
G, L, B, T, Q, A? Lesbian
Meno is a community development specialist with the Burlington Community and Economic Development Office, and she's the volunteer chair of the Board of Directors for the R.U.1.2? Queer Community Center. She recently helped organize a protest against the governor's veto of the transgender identity bill. Meno also does anti-racism organizing; she's Chamorro, a native of Guam. Her civil-union partner, Malisa Garlieb, recently gave birth to their son, Keenan.
On same-sex marriage: "We got a civil union so I could be on my baby's birth certificate, not because I think the government has any right to sanction any kind of relationship. It's good that there's a cause that people who wouldn't normally fight are fighting for, but I'm sad that it has to be marriage."
On racism: "I think the queer community has stolen momentum from people of color, stolen language from people of color. Use Stonewall, for example. Everybody knows that it was a bunch of transvestites and drag queens of color, but no one ever talks about why the movement is now controlled by straight-acting white guys. It's another example of how white people have built momentum, money and resources on the backs of people of color. There are always opportunities for white people to give up leadership roles to people of color. I acknowledge in Vermont it's hard, but it's not impossible.
What are you working for?: "I want to create a queer, anti-racist movement. I want to make the community center actually a community center. And I want to raise my child in a world that's not hostile to his mothers."
Name: Nat Kinney
G, L, B, T, Q, A? Ally
Kinney is an inventory manager for a company in Morrisville. He knows many gay people -- including his lesbian mother. He lives in Johnson with his girlfriend, Mara.
On Pride: "I went as a kid. In Burlington, many years ago, my mother was marching. I was 15. She didn't know I was there. When she passed, I yelled out, 'Go Mom!' The guy next to me looked at me like I had three heads."
On same-sex marriage: "I'm in favor of it. I think it's important for gay families and for children of gay families to have that protection. It seems like a lot of people who are against gay marriage talk about how marriage is about protecting the children. If it is about children, we need to stand up and be talking about how it's just as important to protect the children of gay people as the children of straight people."
On coming out as an ally: "In high school, I was having a conversation with this guy I knew about gays in the military. He was on the anti-gay side. He said, 'You've got to think about the children. They're having children now.' I said, 'I've gotta let you in on a little secret here. I'm one of those children. My mom is a lesbian.' The conversation kind of stopped. But I had a lot of interesting experiences with separatist lesbians, too. There were folks who really didn't have a lot of trust in men in general. There were women who got to know me through my mother, maybe I changed their attitudes a little bit, changed their ideas of what men can be about."
On being an ally: "Usually the message I get is that if you're an ally, you're not part of the gay community. And I can understand where they're coming from. There's something fundamental about the gay experience that obviously I can't experience. But I feel like I'm part of the community."